Stefan Fatsis: The following podcast includes explicit language not restricted to words beginning with F, s, B and Q.
Stefan Fatsis: Hi, I’m Stefan Fatsis and this is Slate’s sports podcast, Hang Up and Listen for the week of August 15th, 2022. On this week’s show, Louisa Thomas of The New Yorker will join us to discuss Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson. For now, anyway, six game suspension and what the NFL’s request for a longer punishment actually means. Thomas will stick around to assess Serena Williams announcement that she is evolving away from tennis, a.k.a retiring. Finally, Julie Kliegman of Sports Illustrated will be here to talk about her recent story. Do Psychedelics Have A Future in Sports? Prompted by Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, recent disclosure that taking ayahuasca made him love himself and his teammates more. Joel Anderson is off this week and so is Josh Levine. But they remain in my heart and can remain in your ears because of this.
Stefan Fatsis: Thursday, August 18th. Slate launches the third season of one year, its series about forgotten stories that help shape American life. The new season is all about 1986, and it consists of seven episodes, some hosted by Josh and one hosted by Joel. Alas, no epis on Spud Webb winning the NBA slam dunk contest or the USFL folding after a jury awarded it $1 in damages, or Sports Illustrated naming Joe Paterno its Sportsman of the Year. But the first episode is kind of about sports. Here’s Josh describing it in the trailer, which we’ll link to on our show page.
Speaker 2: And basketball star Isaiah Thomas has an audacious plan to transform Detroit.
Speaker 3: I’m asking the dope man on this day. Don’t sell dope. I’m asking you who steals for a living? On this day, don’t steal. I’m asking you who kills for a living on this day. Let them live.
Stefan Fatsis: There’s a pretty good chance we’ll be discussing that on this show next week. In the meantime, I’m the author of Word Freak. A few seconds of Panic and Wild Outside. I’m in Washington, D.C., just that from Barcelona, where I attended my first game at Camp Nou. A six nothing Barcelona exhibition romp over PUMAs of Mexico. It was fun. Joining me from Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts, on Martha’s Vineyard outdoors. So you may hear some birds chirping. It’s New Yorker magazine staff writer and theater critic and hang up and listen. Super sub Vincent Cunningham. Welcome back, Vincent.
Speaker 4: Thank you so much, Stefan. Glad to have you back stateside.
Stefan Fatsis: Well, you are truly our outlook on our soul share. Before coaching, Manchester United was known for coming off the bench for them in the nineties and 2000 fans scoring crucial goals. Do you know what his nickname was?
Speaker 4: No, I don’t.
Stefan Fatsis: The baby faced assassin.
Speaker 4: I hope that one applies to me, too.
Stefan Fatsis: Well, I don’t. I wasn’t sure whether you’d want to be the baby faced assassin or one of the likes NBA Sixth Man Award winners. That there’s some pretty good award winners in there, too. James Harden.
Speaker 4: The mano a mano being a probably my favorite, but yeah, baby face.
Stefan Fatsis: Be your favorite. Yeah, that was one of the most three times. Was that Jamal Crawford and Lou Williams the only three time winners?
Speaker 4: Oh, that makes sense.
Stefan Fatsis: This year’s winner was Tyler Herro. I don’t think you want to be Tyler.
Speaker 4: You know. Thank you.
Stefan Fatsis: Before we get started, I also wanted to tell everyone that in our Slate Plus segment this week, we’ll continue our conversation about Aaron Rodgers and athletes and mental health with essays Julie Kliegman. To hear that segment, you’ll need to be a Slate Plus member that doesn’t just get you bonus segments on this show and other Slate podcasts. It also lets you listen ad free and gives you the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve done all you can to support this program. We appreciate it to join. Go to Slate.com slash hang up plus. That’s Slate.com slash hang up plus.
Stefan Fatsis: On Friday night in Jacksonville, Deshaun Watson started at quarterback for the Cleveland Browns for the first time and played for the first time in 19 months. How did it go? Well, Watson played three offensive series, completed one of five passes for seven yards and was serenaded by fans. Let’s listen.
Speaker 5: You said what you said, but you said, oh, no, no, no means no, no.
Stefan Fatsis: No, no. Earlier this month, Watson was suspended for the first six games of the regular season after he was accused of sexual misconduct during sessions with more than two dozen massage therapists. The NFL has appealed the decision and is reportedly seeking a full year ban, plus a large fine. In The New Yorker, Louisa Thomas wrote that whatever the final punishment, Watson quote is richer than he has ever been, more powerful than he was before. A series of women told the police and the press what he had done to them. Louisa Thomas joins us now. Welcome back to the show.
Speaker 6: Thanks for having me.
Stefan Fatsis: Great to have you back, Louisa. Sexual abuse cases in sports tend to follow a pattern. One part of it is the athlete attempting to repair his image by cleaning up past statements with Watson. The clean up started on Friday before the Jacksonville game, after previously saying he had no regrets about his encounters with the massage therapists behavior, the suspension ruling described as predatory and egregious. Watson offered his first apology. It came in an interview with a reporter who works for the Browns ADT King Cup WALA.
Speaker 3: I have to ask you, the initial ruling from Judge Sue Robinson made a very specific point of saying that your lack of remorse played into her decision making. It’s been a part of the narrative surrounding you. What is your response to that?
Speaker 7: Look, I want to say that I’m truly sorry to all the women that have impacted in this situation, my decisions that are made in my life that put me in this position. You know, I would definitely like to have that. But I want to continue to move forward and grow and learn and and show that, you know, I am a true person of character and I want to keep pushing forward.
Stefan Fatsis: Louisa All the women I impacted in this situation, that sounded pretty scripted to me. What do you make of it and the process that we’re watching unfold?
Speaker 6: I was kind of amused to see it described as an apology. He did use the word apologize, but it was pretty passive voice. And, you know, I was also amused to see, I should say grimly amused to see that the Browns coach after the game used some of the same language as Watson and his so-called apology. I think he probably wants some throws back, Stefanski said.
Speaker 6: So yeah, I think that probably the language was pretty drilled into everyone’s head ahead of time. But what does he have to apologize for? I mean, the guy has the richest contract in NFL history. No sponsors have dropped the Browns. Watson got to pick his destination. There are four teams vying for him. I mean, it seems like life has turned out pretty well for him. He’s still being mobbed for autographs. And I’m not saying this to say that the Browns are somehow outliers. I mean, this is normal. The NFL teams are bigger than any scandal so far.
Speaker 4: It’s funny. The choice to keep him around because it is a choice is being played by everybody else unless there’s some sort of hostage situation. So another moment of grim amusement for me was watching this video, the Browns reporter asking him these questions. You know, I have to ask you this. And then he gives you this horrible answer and she kind of looks at the camera and says, well, that you can tell she doesn’t want to do it. She doesn’t want to even want to be there talking to him. He’s done this kind of role. It just seems like everybody’s in this dance of sort of playing roles that in the end, they just don’t have to play. I know that the NFL, for its own reasons, is seeking more time for him, but it just seems like a bit of a joke. It’s hard to have a a new thought about it, except that it seems that they’re going backwards instead of forward over fact.
Stefan Fatsis: Really leapt out to me is that when Roger Goodell came out and, you know, talked about how his conduct was so egregious that we need a longer suspension. The cynical part of my brain, meaning 80% of my brain went to. Well, it actually would benefit the NFL for Deshaun Watson not to show up in mid-season and have this be the center of media attention for another one, two, three, five, eight weeks, depending on if they make the playoffs and what happens to the team going forward and how he plays. Is that wrong?
Speaker 6: You’re more cynical than me, but it sounds right. My mind definitely didn’t go there. But why not? You know, I mean, we can also say, I do think that Roger Goodell does get to play the good guy in this situation. I think he’s saying the right things about it, needing to be a longer situation, that this is unprecedented conduct and, you know, that he might even be tacitly admitting that they have been doing it wrong all along.
Speaker 6: At the same time, you know, Norah Pynchon for The Ringer wrote I thought a really good essay about how he. Had the opportunity to place Deshaun Watson on the commissioners exemplars. He declined to because he wanted to let the legal, you know, system play out. And that did kind of create a hostage situation for teams because they did have to keep making this calculus. Well, you know what? If he has any, you know, prison time, what if he is, you know, in this situation that like how do we way are winning chances against that at the end of the day these NFL teams. That is what they care about. That is what they’ve always cared about. That’s what we ask them to care about as fans. And so, yeah, I mean, it’s been a kind of terrible situation for everyone involved. But most of all, let’s not forget for the women that he impacted.
Speaker 4: Yes. Yes.
Speaker 6: And I didn’t mean to make a joke because there are real women involved here. And, you know, I don’t want to be glib about it.
Speaker 4: And speaking of being glib with a sort of undercurrent of sincerity, I do wonder what the meaning of those, I guess the broader meaning of those chants are. You know, I do think that Goodell and his good guy act is responding to a difference in sentiment among people. I think people are more aware of these issues, and I think that there is more of a sentiment that would want him to be more harshly punished. I don’t totally believe that those fans are you know, those chants are executed in the sort of perfectly sincere. Empathy for those women. But at the same time, I do wonder how the fan reaction will continue to fuel how this goes.
Speaker 6: There was a lot of reporting that before they decided to appeal, they were actually waiting to see what the public’s response to the independent investigation was. And then the fact that they did appeal and are seeking this longer suspension does suggest that they they are aware of the temperature of the, you know, the room and and and why not? I mean, I I’m willing to give a little bit of the benefit of the doubt and say that he, too, has probably been educated on a lot of these issues. And, you know, in part because of his own role in how this is played out in American culture. So so yeah, we are in a different place than we were, you know, when the Ray Rice video came out and that’s for the better. But we’re not where we should be.
Stefan Fatsis: Right. And I think that’s reflected in the way the adjudication of this case has happened. The the the retired federal judge that handled the first round of of determining what his suspension should be based, the six month suspension on precedent on previous cases that the NFL adjudicated. And what I feel like for a place that we’re at now is that everyone has recognized that that’s insufficient, that that this system has to change. And, you know, whether leagues should be involved in this in any way, how leagues should adjudicate these kinds of non-criminal punishments or punishments for non-criminal behavior or behavior that’s been, you know, not been accepted by courts as criminal. It is a it is evolving. And so if you want to give Goodell some credit. Yeah.
Stefan Fatsis: Okay. Pushing for a year makes a lot of sense. I’d like to see the Browns face some consequences. I mean, the signing of Deshaun Watson was a cynical act in and of itself. They structured his contract with like $1,000,000 base salary for this season, anticipating that he was going to be suspended. I mean, that that is just as as as cynical as it gets.
Speaker 6: It was shocking. I mean, that was when the news came out of his contract. The money was shocking. But the way they had structured it was was, I think to many people, a real slap in the face because. Yeah, I mean, it’s. It’s, I guess, what they felt they had to do to get him there. But again, that’s because he had all the leverage. And that was part of the weird irony in this situation. The disgusting irony really was that, you know, he was sort of in a better place than he had been when he first asked for a trade demand.
Stefan Fatsis: Yeah. I mean, and I think that like what the fine element a component of his additional punishment will wind up being is is noteworthy. I mean, $1,000,000 base salary this year, $46 million base salary in 2023, $45 million signing bonus. That is untouchable. I mean, I don’t know what the league has, the power or the authority to do. I mean, they would face legal challenges if they were to try to punt, you know, penalize him to find him $90 million to recoup all of that, or 45 plus half of 46 for the salary that he should have been getting this year. But something’s got to give here. And I think the league will or maybe it’s just the you know, that it’ll be business as usual and everyone will continue to overlook this aspect of it.
Speaker 4: I mean, I think the most cynical and probably most likely thing that we can imagine is that like just as they are trying to change the parameters of the suspension, you could find a number that would seem more than usual, but still wouldn’t meaningfully change Watson’s situation. But what the team signing of him in the conditions of that signing, I mean, what it says to me and I hope this doesn’t make me too negative or whatever, but it makes me seem, makes me feel, especially given what Deshaun Watson did, which is like use the. Structures of his work to assault people.
Speaker 4: Right. Like sports, massage is a real thing, right? It makes me think that the team just isn’t surprised by this. And what that means to me is that there’s just so much more to be done. And I don’t know how long the arm of the NFL is, but I think that their time just as usefully, you know, to penalize him as much as they can. But the time is also very well spent thinking deeply about what their structures leave people open to. And it just seems like there’s so much work to do and so much farther to go.
Speaker 6: I think actually also some of this was revealed in the in the fact that the independent arbiters, decision serums and decision was so disappointing. I mean, she herself pointed out that she had a very limited toolkit. I don’t think I think most people are not happy with the decision that she came to, but it’s not like she had the power to say, you know, clearly he needs counseling. You know, clearly there needs to be some other kind of remediation. Clearly, we need to readdress this. She gestured that he probably merited a longer suspension in some sense, but that she had to go off precedent.
Speaker 6: And, you know, this also speaks to the limits of our legal system. You know, here is a retired judge using the kind of language and the training that she has. And we all know that our legal system and our judicial system is is pretty terrible in these situations. And we need to start rethinking about I mean, this is if if there is anything good that comes out of this, I hope there is a larger conversation about what kind of remediation would make a difference, what kind of punishment is a fair punishment? You know, not just like, well, he should just be, you know, erased from the face of the earth, or he should just be allowed to make all this money. You know, he wasn’t charged with a crime. There has to be some sort of like understanding of we do need to blow up the system. What could it look like instead and how can we think about this more holistically?
Stefan Fatsis: Well, the NFL has historically taken a sort of incremental approach toward punishment. You know, it started with very, very low and it sort of moves to the middle. And Goodell seems to be saying we need to find something that’s more egregious here. The problem with what’s happened, as you describe it, Louisa, is that, you know, you wrote that because the NFL has a history of placing a low value on the well-being of women, it must continue to do so. Sue Robinson was unwilling to break with precedent because that’s what she’s trained to do and that’s what her instructions were. Roger Goodell and the owners have the ability to change the system in tandem with the players union. They can negotiate changes in these punishments, whether they’re willing to do that for reasons of PR image damage to the league’s reputation or perceived, the damage is unclear.
Speaker 4: It does seem that in so many places in our society we need new precedents and people with the courage to set them. So I hope this is one such case.
Stefan Fatsis: I’m not sure we should look to the NFL and hope that they will be courageous. But, you know, I guess anything is possible.
Speaker 6: Well, I will say that, you know, I think that domestic violence and sexual assault and things like that, a lot of these conversations have come out of, you know, incidents in the NFL. And so even if the NFL doesn’t do the right thing in every situation or in any situation or in most situations, you know, pick your answer at least maybe we can continue having this conversation and we’ll get to a situation in which when something happens, the matrix of decision making is a little bit further down the road, just like it was in some sense. Now I’m I’m grasping for hope here.
Stefan Fatsis: But up next, the coming end of Serena Williams unparalleled tennis career.
Stefan Fatsis: Serena Williams is scheduled to play Morata Cano in the first round of the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati on Tuesday. The tournament is Williams last warm up before the U.S. Open later this month, which might be her last tournament ever in an as told to cover essay for Vogue last week, Williams announced that she is evolving away from tennis toward other things that are important to me. In other words, she’s retiring.
Stefan Fatsis: The match up with Rod O’Connor was a good one for storyline. And while time flies reasons, Roddick, Connery’s 19, shockingly won the U.S. Open last year and is a potential next gen star. Williams turns 41 this month as the Twitter account relevant tennis noted. When Rod O’Connor was born in November 2002, Williams already had won four Grand Slams, 19 WTA titles and 210 matches and was number one in the world. She had been a pro for seven years. Vinson Serena’s longevity is far down the list of things that make her career remarkable, but I think it’s a good place to start assessing her decision to evolve away, especially when you contrast it with the retirement this year of a recent number one, Ash Barty, at just 26. There’s a throwaway line in the Vogue essay that made me smile, but I think also explains a lot. My goodness, Serena wrote. Do I enjoy tennis?
Speaker 4: Yeah. It’s the longevity is amazing. And her enjoyment of it was made manifest in so many different ways across the years. I’ve always wondered, you know, what her actual relationship to the game is because of the extraordinary circumstances under which she started to play the game, her dad and all these things that I’ve always wondered if she liked it much in the way or loved it much in the way that we love our are difficult and extravagant parents, you know? Yes, we love it. But there’s strains of other emotions as well. I’m wowed by Serena Williams every time I even stop to think about her. And I it’s so strange that even she’s 41 and I’m still surprised that this is happening. And keeping in the back of my mind, I hope that maybe she’ll reconsider or something.
Stefan Fatsis: Louisa Sticking to the longevity question, Serena writes in her essay and you note in a piece you did for The New Yorker that tennis has always felt like a sacrifice, though it’s one I enjoyed making. And this is a contrast, I think, with a lot of athletes. I think of Andre Agassi, who in his memoir Open talked about how miserable he was throughout his career. And, you know, in talking to NFL athletes, they will tell you that their quotidian lives in the league are pretty miserable. Serena, though, you know, driven from the age of 4 to 40, seems to have it doesn’t feel like as much as a conflict for her that it was this is what I was meant to do in all of these big ways.
Speaker 6: You know, I do think that Vinson was on to something, which is that love can mean many things and still be love. I mean, I think we know pretty well that Serena is obviously committed to tennis. I mean, she was she was in some sense born to play. And she has embraced that identity and in her own words is having a very hard time giving that up. At the same time, we know that she’s not someone who loves being on the practice court. She’s not someone who loves going out there and playing for the sake of it. She’s not even like Venus, who can go out and lose in the first round in Toronto and feel like she’s had a good week? Probably because she played some spectacular points and and enjoys just being there. I think Serena Williams loves winning.
Speaker 6: And one thing, you know, that she was criticized a lot for early in her career, but has obviously proven to be one of the things that has kept her in the game so long is that she’s had very long breaks away from the game. Some of those are for injury, obviously for pregnancy. And also she’s had other pursuits. You know, she’ll skip a tournament in order to go to a fashion show or whatever, you know, and that’s that’s her right. And that’s why she’s still playing the game at 40 or has been until now. So I think that that when we think about her longevity and her commitment and her love to tennis, I think it I think it is complicated, but it doesn’t at the same time take anything away from the idea of love.
Speaker 4: I was struck earlier this year along those lines, Luisa, that you know. Earlier this year, she broke up with her coach of several years. I’m going to mess up his name, but Patrick Mouratoglou. He’s one of my favourite Instagram followers. He’s always telling how to improve the serve. I, I have never had things like that, but it seemed to me that, that we might be able to interpret that now as a kind of an early harbinger. You know, she wasn’t going to be in a lot of these tournaments that he wants to be coaching in. And so he kind of switched off and followed some other pursuits. But this does seem that this has been sort of a gradual thing. It’s not just a decision that struck her when she was ready to talk to Vogue.
Speaker 6: Well, a lot of people thought that she actually wouldn’t officially retire, that she would sort of kind of gracefully show up when she wanted to show up, not show up when she wanted to show up and eventually stop entering entering draws. But there was no there’s no requirement in tennis that you have to put out a statement saying, I’m retired. And she very well could have just done what maybe even Roger Federer seems to be doing, which is just. Stop playing. And, you know, Federer will probably play Laver Cup. I mean, he he’s not retiring either in some real sense.
Stefan Fatsis: But she also could have done what like Martina Navratilova did, which is keep playing doubles and winning a few more majors total. She’s 47, 48, 49.
Speaker 6: But, you know, I mean, I do think that this is this was a surprise to no one in tennis. The timing was a surprise. The existence of an essay that was so candid and revealing, I think was a surprise. But the fact that she’s walking away from the game. No. You know, you mentioned Patrick Mouratoglou. He actually he put out a statement. He’s now working with Simona Halep, who just won. Toronto is pretty good coach. She, though, is a very good player. So, you know, he’s someone who maybe likes to take a little bit more credit than he might deserve.
Speaker 6: But, you know, he he said he’d had a conversation with Serena that made it clear to him that he was sort of free to. Take on a new a new client or work with a new player. And and their relationship is deeply complicated and long and storied as say. But, you know, she was actually asked, was it weird to see him at Wimbledon? And she’s like, oh, you know, I haven’t thought of it, which is the most Serena comment you can imagine. I mean, she she gives she gives us exactly what she wants to give us.
Stefan Fatsis: One of the things that was most focused on in the Vogue s essay were Serena’s comments about having to choose between tennis and family, because the thing that she really focused on was saying that I want to have a second child. And the doctors have told me because she had that very difficult first pregnancy or post-pregnancy, that it’s looking good. But then she also said, I don’t think it’s fair that she has to choose. If I were a guy, I wouldn’t be writing this because I’d be out there playing and winning while my wife was doing the physical labor labor of expanding our family. Maybe I’d be more of a Tom Brady if I had that opportunity. That’s a pretty I mean, drawing that drawing that that comparison, particularly naming Brady, I think is a really interesting thing for her to do in this essay.
Speaker 6: I mean, she is in that rarefied air of I don’t know to maybe you know it is there in Tom Brady when we talk about goats that sort of transcend goat dom so of course, you know, that’s the name she’s going to invoke. Of course, you mentioned Tiger Woods in the essay. Of course, you know, there are just very, very, very few number of athletes who exist in her world in some sense. But you know what? She’s she’s right to some extent. I mean, we can’t assume that she would have gone on to win majors. She did make four finals after coming back from having a child. But, you know, she she’s 40 years old. And for a tennis player, you know, that is you know, Martina Navratilova did go on to win doubles titles, but not singles titles. No 40 year old has won a grand slam title. We can’t assume that she would be winning majors. Not said she’s right and it’s not fair. And that’s life.
Speaker 6: And, you know, I mean, there are no ways in which I can relate to Serena Williams except for this. I’m a 40 year old woman who just had a child. And I can tell you, it’s you know, it’s taxing in all sorts of ways that are not just physical but are certainly physical. And yeah, if you could pass off the physical labor, you know, I can in the smallest ways. You know, I can think of all those stories that I didn’t get to write or whatever. I mean, but that’s life, you know? And that’s that’s the choice that we’re faced with making. And it’s it’s not fair, but it is what it is.
Speaker 4: Every time Serena plays a match, it’s a huge spectacle. I mean, every time. And it’s it’s a sort of gravity, a stroke, a black hole, right? This like, vortex of energy and attention and all these things.
Speaker 4: Louis Do you have even a sense of how this U.S. Open is going to play out? I mean, in those terms, like, I just, you know, I’m I’m here like looking at my bank account with like like with a headache, seeing if I can get there one of these days because it’s like it’s it’s that important. I just wonder just how you think these next couple of weeks are going to play out.
Speaker 6: It’s electric. I mean I mean, yes, she’s I mean, the closest I can come when I think of it is there was a night match where she played Venus not so long ago. And that was a major cultural event. You know, I mean, this is going to be, you know, ticket sales have spiked. I think the U.S. Open is now sold out, you know, just on the basis of of this announcement. Yeah, I think it’s I think it’s going to be unreal. I think it’s going to be a major landmark calendar event this year. You know, I’ve been thinking about, you know, I’m credentialed for the U.S. Open, so I’m like, how do I get there? There’s not enough media seating for all the credentialed media. So you have to actually like line up in the morning. I’m like, what time do you have to show up in line to get a media thing? Like, how do you plan your, you know, my do you have to like sobering a tense you know that certainly I.
Stefan Fatsis: You should get out overnight. Yeah I think that makes no sense. I mean, the the spectacle part of it. I mean, this is like this is a significant sports cultural moment potentially. I mean, of course, she could decide to play another tournament next year or could decide to play doubles at some point. She’s not saying I’m walking away completely, though. In her essay, of course, she talks about her venture capital business and investing and how she loves getting up in the morning and opening Zoom and having meetings, which I was a little bit suspicious of.
Speaker 4: Yeah, I don’t know about that. Yeah.
Stefan Fatsis: But knowing what we know about Serena Williams, she’s going to want to play well at the U.S. Open. She’s not going to want to lose. In the first round. Her new coach, Eric Heckman, was quoted in a New York Times piece by Christopher Clarey the other day saying, These are all building blocks for New York, meaning the two tournaments that she’s played in before the open. And put it this way, she’s not just showing up. As a farewell tour today, we could see stretches of level of play that are championship level, and I truly believe that she has got that gear in her, and I know she believes it, too. She’s got to think I want to win this or I want to get close.
Speaker 6: Wimbledon was a wake up call for her, probably because, you know, Wimbledon is a tournament where she is dominated and she lost in the first round. And it was an exciting match. But, you know, the Serena Williams we know does not lose to Harmony Tan in the first round at Wimbledon. And she was have been off the court for a year. It said nothing about Serena Williams and everything about how good tennis players are these days. And the fact that she just can’t walk up and win is is something she’s recognised and that’s why she’s playing and Toronto, that’s why she’s playing in Cincinnati and that’s why she’s, you know, recognizing that she has to have some experience coming into this tournament because yeah, she does want to make a run. You know, I don’t I will be shocked if she wins it. Like truly shocked by it. Will I be shocked if she makes a deep run? No, she’s Serena Williams. She can do what she wants.
Stefan Fatsis: Louisa Thomas writes for The New Yorker. We’ll post a link to her piece about Serena Williams. Louisa. Thank you so much for coming on the show.
Speaker 6: Thank you.
Stefan Fatsis: Coming up next, Vinson and I talked to Julie Kliegman of Sports Illustrated about the increasing use of psychedelic drugs by athletes.
Stefan Fatsis: Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers recently went on a podcast hosted by the founder of a supplements company over two and a half hours. Rodgers and the host Aubrey Marcus, broke out about workouts and infomercials about the company’s products. But they also got deeply talking about spirituality, ancient Greek medicine, miracles and, well, taking psychedelic drugs. Rodgers said he went on an ayahuasca retreat to Peru in 2020 and credited the hallucinogenic tea with making him a better person and helping him become MVP of the NFL last season. Here’s a little of what Rodgers said about what ayahuasca did for him.
Speaker 7: To me, one of the core tenets of your mental health is that self-love. And that’s what ayahuasca did for me was. Help me see how I’m going to see a lot of myself and. It’s only in that unconditional self love that that I’m able to truly be able to unconditionally love others. And what better way to work on for me in my own person, in my own belief. But what better way to work on my mental health and to to have an experience like that? I mean, the best the greatest gift I can give my teammates, in my opinion, is to be able to show up and to be someone who can model unconditional love to them. Yeah. I mean, obviously it’s important to play well and show up and lead and all that stuff, but they won’t care about what you say until they know how much you care.
Stefan Fatsis: It’s easy to drag Aaron Rodgers as his COVID protestations showed, he can come off as an insufferable. I did my own research woo woo naif. But in this case, he might be on to something.
Stefan Fatsis: Julie Kliegman is the copy chief of Sports Illustrated and the author of the Long Form Story Do Psychedelics Have a Future in Sports, which posted on SI.com last week and we will post a link to it on our show page. Julie joins us now. Hey there.
Speaker 8: Hi. Thanks for having me.
Stefan Fatsis: Thanks for coming on the show. Julie, you write in the piece that while it’s still a small number, more athletes are using psychedelic drugs to treat mental health issues and are talking about it openly. What drugs are we talking about and what do some athletes say about how they have helped them?
Speaker 8: Sure. So we’re talking about psilocybin or magic mushrooms. You might know them as we’re talking about ecstasy or MDMA. In Aaron Rodgers case, we’re talking about ayahuasca, though. That’s I’m sure we’ll get more into this, but that’s not one of the ones that is currently being examined most closely in clinical settings.
Speaker 4: It strikes me as consonant with all that we hear about athletes, right, that they have to go undergo incredible sort of mental, excruciating ins to get their work done. I especially think about tennis players. I was thinking about tennis a lot with this because, you know, I was thinking about how much Nick Kyrgios seems to, you know, potentially benefit from a retreat within Aaron Rodgers, you know. But what was your sense of the greatest sort of is it the just the anxiety relief that people are looking for? Is it some other with as Roger just talking about some of the connection of sport with other regions of their emotional life, what for you seem to be, as you’re reporting this out, the most sought after benefit?
Speaker 8: Yeah, I think for some people it probably does have a real spiritual component. Like Aaron was kind of getting out, but at the end of the day, I think it’s like best thought of as just, you know, another cure for depression or, you know, if not a cure, then something that aids with depression and those episodes.
Stefan Fatsis: Yeah, Roger seemed to me to be kind of an outlier in the conversation. You know, he this spiritual guy whose life seems to be in this quest for for wholeness and completeness and the sort of greater mental awareness. But a lot of the athletes that you talk to and some other reporters have have talked to seem to view this as some medical experts view it as a way to treat not just the depression that you alluded to and the stress of being an athlete that some but the the consequences of being an athlete, the fear of CTE, constant concussions, that foggy brain that a lot of football players and other contact sport athletes suffer after their careers end. I mean, Julie, what’s the what’s the medical sort of belief right now about whether treating things like post-concussion syndrome, PTSD, potential CTE, can be alleviated with the use of some of these drugs and what drugs are being examined in connection with that.
Speaker 8: So I spoke to Daniel Carcillo, the former NHL player, and he has traumatic brain injury. He also had suicidal ideation, was kind of making plans for suicide. And he is an example of someone who took psilocybin. And, you know, he says he felt those symptoms clear up pretty much entirely. And traumatic brain injury shares a lot of symptoms with PTSD, and sometimes they’re almost indistinguishable. And Maps, which is a nonprofit in the US that has been researching psychedelics and cannabis since 1986, has been running studies with MDMA, which is, you know, showing promising results for helping out with PTSD.
Speaker 4: What truly was your sense of what role regulation might play in the future with all of this? As you pointed out in the piece, and so does Aaron Rodgers, sort of like defiantly like it’s not a banned substance, it’s a plant. And like this is correct, right? This would not have triggered a positive test or anything like that. But obviously, if it becomes more like. Wide spread. I would imagine that the various leagues and federations would start to at least try to build an edifice around its use. What was your sense of when or where or how that regime of regulation could kind of arise?
Speaker 8: You know, I think it’s something the NFL in particular after Rogers’s disclosure, is asking itself right now. They’re probably I don’t know if I want to say kicking themselves a little bit, but, you know, they’re like, you know, why is it okay that Aaron Rodgers took ayahuasca? And we don’t know if it has any performance enhancing qualities. We don’t know this or that. But I think we’re probably still a long ways off from athletes wanting to take this in mass. So I think the leagues do still have some time to figure this out. But, you know, we don’t even have FDA approval for most of these drugs. So there’s we’re kind of several steps away from, you know, athletes seeking these out in great quantities, I think.
Speaker 8: But you you almost think the leagues have to be thinking about this now. My understanding is that urine tests do not. You know, kind of like Aaron pointed out, do not register these drugs. Is it possible to develop tests? Yeah. It’s expensive, though, is my understanding. So it’s probably something that leagues are thinking about.
Stefan Fatsis: Well, I guess the follow up question to that is maybe leagues will be progressive and look at these and look at the studies and say we don’t want to test for this stuff. I mean, the the I think the rapidity with which cannabis has become accepted in sports is becoming more accepted in sports might be the the template for what happens with some of these psychedelics. You know, it’s word of former. The NBA doesn’t even test anymore for for marijuana. And the absence of of awareness on psychedelics might be embarrassing to the NFL and other leagues.
Stefan Fatsis: But maybe the answer is no harm, no foul going forward, as long as, like the doctors that they hire say that that this is the way to go. I mean, maybe I’m being naive here and that leagues are going to want to crack down because they don’t want, you know, 2% or 5% or 20% of their players talking publicly about how they were tripping out on ecstasy, even in a clinical setting. But is that is it possible that that’s where we’re going?
Speaker 8: I think it’s certainly possible. I think you might be being a little bit optimistic just because, you know, the NFL in particular, not known for being super progressive, is not known for carrying a ton about its athletes brains in any sense. But, you know, you can look to a league or, you know, an outfit like UFC and you could see they don’t police cannabis use as long as you don’t show up to a fight impaired in any way. They’ve been looking at partnering with Johns Hopkins on research for psychedelic use as it relates to mental health. They haven’t done so yet, but it’s kind of on the table. So I would like to see more leagues kind of follow that route out of curiosity and how can we help our athletes who might be struggling? But I don’t think it’s a given that every league will do the same.
Speaker 4: Yeah, I mean, when I think of the NFL, I could almost imagine the objection being more cosmetic than scientific. But like, we don’t want our players to be seen as a as a bunch of like, you know, depending on the context, hippies or druggies or whatever. Right? Like I can imagine them just on grounds of sort of especially if the players are going to do podcasts about it. Right. Like right. I could see that being one of the problems.
Stefan Fatsis: Well, yeah. And if you read the I mean, some of the stories that the athletes tell about their experiences taking ayahuasca or ketamine or mushrooms, it’s like, man, that is not the publicity that the NFL that Roger Goodell is looking for.
Speaker 3: And, you.
Speaker 8: Know, it’s it’s really not. Is it such a big deal? Like not really. Like it’s just sort of silly more than anything, in my opinion. The NFL has bigger image issues, you know, as we’re seeing with obviously Deshaun Watson. Right. And we’ve seen with many athletes before him. But yeah, it does seem like something Goodell would be really in his head about.
Stefan Fatsis: I mean, the most striking thing to me, to go back to what you were saying about Daniel Carcillo and some of these other athletes that suffered traumatic brain injuries, is that the dependency on painkillers and anxiety drugs as treatments during and after athletes careers in contact sports especially is just so overwhelming. I just like reading any of these testimonials Dan Robson in the athletic did along. Piece about this as well last year. And she talked to Ryan Vandenbussche of a former NHL player and he listed the sort of the drugs that he was taking while he was playing to dull the pain and get him through each game and to the next game. And then finding psychedelic therapy after he played was really profoundly moving in some ways that if you can find any sort of relief to these athletes, it’s enormous.
Stefan Fatsis: The other thing that striking to me is that a lot of the athletes that have been interviewed about this and that have become the sort of spokes people are going into business here and are partnering up with people like Mike Tyson. And one of the Steinbrenner’s the owners of the Yankees. And that struck me as sort of parallel to what’s happened with with cannabis, where a lot of former athletes are involved in these companies.
Speaker 8: Yeah. Yeah. I don’t think you go into business with it unless you’re real, real confident that it has some benefit to yourself and people like yourself.
Speaker 4: Yeah, it’s interesting thinking about the sort of woo woo axis of this. Right. You know, you think about like the the huge racket and supplements. Every time I turn on a sports channel, it’s like some guy telling me I don’t have enough testosterone or whatever. But, you know, I contrast this to someone like Novak Djokovic who’s like very sort of famously spiritualist around his body, like believes he can hold a piece of bread to his stomach and feel the adverse effects of gluten and all this stuff. And interestingly, someone like that doesn’t seem interested in like marketing it, right? Like in this might be exactly what you’re talking about that like he knows that this is incredibly esoteric or whatever it is that he believes about the body, whereas some of these athletes are very sure on very sort of solid, solid ground of science that like this could this could work. And I think that is the pathway to market, I guess.
Speaker 8: Yeah. And they’re also not afraid to talk about their mental health. I mean, when you talk about someone like Djokovic, it’s hard to imagine him being open and vulnerable about what’s actually going on with him, which I don’t know. It seems like he’s had a rough couple of years. Right. But yeah, like these athletes, they’re part of this, like, evolution. Or maybe even if you want to say like revolution of people talking about their mental illness and their mental health in more honest terms. And yeah, if part of that is that psychedelics help them, you know, I think there’s like an earnest thread there.
Stefan Fatsis: And I guess one of the things we haven’t talked about is what the medical community believes to be any of the sort of potentially deleterious effects of taking psychedelics.
Stefan Fatsis: What did you find in your reporting, Julie, in terms of what professors and doctors who study this stuff feel about the use and what they recommend in terms of, you know, controlled use, clinical use. You know, some of the athletes talk about how they only take psychedelics in a clinical setting where there’s a therapist present guiding them through their their trip. Do we have a good sense at this point, you know, where the medical community stands and what kinds of studies are in the offing to examine this further?
Speaker 8: Yeah. So we don’t have, I would say, a great sense of where all this stands right now. There’s still a ton of research that needs to be done, but the science, you point to it being most beneficial for an athlete to be, like you said, in a clinical setting with a therapist guiding them through with, you know, hours of therapy to process after each session. And there have been studies that have shown that taking a psychedelic and doing like a daylong session with a therapist afterward is more effective than if you were to just do a day long session of therapy with no medicine whatsoever.
Speaker 8: And yeah, I mean, just want to shout out Courtney Campbell Walton, he and a colleague of his did a paper on sports and psychedelic use. And I think it’s like the only paper that they know of on sports and psychedelic use. So he’s asked a lot of really good questions about where we’re headed here. And I think what’s important to him to stress is that these aren’t like some magical cure all, but nor is it as harmful as a lot of people think it is. I mean, psychedelics are very safe compared to a lot of other medicine and they have a lot of potential to help people.
Speaker 4: Have you gotten a sense along those lines of athletes now being sort of influenced by this first group of like, I guess call them pioneers out there? Did you catch wind of people? Watching Aaron Rodgers as podcast and sort of being excited about adding this to their sort of their regimen or things like that, whether how fast or slow that sort of adoption is.
Stefan Fatsis: Happening or like how many sort of are quietly doing this while they’re on teams? Because a lot of the athletes that are speaking out obviously are retired and are looking for help.
Speaker 8: Well, I would be shocked if people didn’t see or hear. Aaron Rodgers is testament about psychedelics and, you know, start asking questions of psychiatrists or physicians. My reporting was done by that point, so I didn’t have anyone to ask, like, did this influence you one way or the other? But yeah, I certainly have to think it must have. And when I talked to NBA agent Daniel Poneman, he knows of athletes across sports who are using psychedelics, who are just aside from the athlete who emailed me anonymously. Not ready to come forward about it. And yeah. And Aaron Rodgers, when I asked him of athletes using psychedelics, he was just like, of course, of course he knows people. So are all of them using that, you know, in clinical settings? I don’t know. But there’s certainly like some sort of like network of athletes using them right now.
Stefan Fatsis: Well, as long as Aaron Rodgers is is feeling more love, I’m I’m on board with that because I want him to have a deep and meaningful appreciation for life. I truly Kliegman is the copy chief at Sports Illustrated. She is the also the author of the piece Do Psychedelics Have a Future in Sports? We’ll post it on our show page. Julie, thanks so much for coming on the show.
Speaker 8: Thanks. I appreciate it.
Stefan Fatsis: And now it is time for After Balls sponsored by Bennett’s Prune Juice, endorsed by Kenny Sailors who says it was okay. Actually, I just wanted to read the intro line. I’m afraid we’re skipping after balls this week, but teaser. I played petanque in France a couple of weeks ago and I really want to talk about pétanque. So stay tuned. That is our show for today. Our producer is Kevin Bendis. To listen to past shows and subscribe, go to Slate.com slash hang up. And you can email us at Hang Up at Slate.com and please subscribe to the show and rate and review us on Apple Podcasts.
Stefan Fatsis: For Vinson Cunningham, I’m Stefan Fatsis remembers Elmo Baty and thanks for listening.
Stefan Fatsis: We’re back and it’s slate plus time to thank you, Slate Plus members. Sports Illustrated copy. Chief Julie Kliegman is back. She’s been writing stories about athletes and mental health for several years now. She’s working on a book tentatively titled Mind Game Inside the Mental Health Playbook of Elite Athletes. Julie, thanks for coming back.
Speaker 8: Yeah, thanks so much for having me.
Stefan Fatsis: I want to talk a bit about your other reporting. I do want to talk a little bit more about Aaron Rodgers. And I went and looked at the entire two and a half interview he did with this supplements dude, and there’s a YouTube of it and that’s very conveniently they’ve divided it into timestamps so that they can put advertisements in between each segment for this guy’s company and the titles of some of the time stamps are just fantastic. Ancient Greece Holistic Medicine and Miracles From Ayahuasca two back to back MVP seasons, the depth of friendship and the warrior poet mentality modeling unconditional self-love and masculine feminine balance, allowing yourself to grieve gratitude and acknowledging flaws when you heal your grievance with the divine and Aaron Rodgers as a piece of work.
Speaker 3: But.
Stefan Fatsis: You know, having said that. I want to feel like this is a guy who’s also kind of actualizing himself that he is he is willing to be out there publicly in a way that most athletes, particularly NFL, would be reluctant to do. Yeah. On this topic.
Speaker 8: Right? Right. I mean, he said he was really nervous for like a month before doing that podcast. And, you know, I believe him. Like it’s even if you’re Aaron Rodgers. Right. It must be a tough thing to come forward about. By the way, I hadn’t seen those timestamps. I was just listening on the Apple podcast page. So thank you for those. Sure. But yeah, like he seems to be very earnest about this. And I don’t know if there’s something mental health wise that’s going on with him or that was going on with him and he’s not ready to share. Or if he just doesn’t subscribe to like the clinical terminology, which honestly is a pretty likely scenario, but he might be the only person I know whose life got better since the start of the pandemic.
Speaker 4: It’s interesting because obviously, especially in the context of the NFL, the quarterback is a kind of protected class, right? Where if somebody is going to talk about this kind of thing, it’s going to be someone like Aaron Rodgers. You’re not going to see a third string cornerback doing podcasts about his spiritual and mental health awareness. But he he does. Even given those sort of relative privileges, he does seem to be at the vanguard of a kind of revolution in just how players talk openly about their mental health. I mean, we’ve seen it across sports and we’ve seen it, by the way, across society. Right. This is not something that is contained to sports. Right. But I do wonder if just in the course of working on your book, you’ve seen sort of what have been the engines of players feeling that extra empowerment. Is it mostly hearing it from other players? Is it hearing the context that’s happening outside of sports? What’s making people speak up a little bit more?
Speaker 8: I think a lot of it is what they hear from other athletes. I pitched this book and started working on it before, before Simone Biles and the Olympics in Tokyo. But since then, I’ve talked to so many athletes who point right back to Simona, right back to Naomi Osaka, or right back to Kevin Love, for example, and say like, hey, I was experiencing this stuff, or maybe even I wasn’t experiencing this stuff. But, you know, then after so-and-so athlete came forward and I was feeling a different sort of way, it kind of gave me the vocabulary. It kind of gave me the courage to to talk about this.
Stefan Fatsis: Yeah. And and another recent example, of course, is Ben Simmons. And unlike the athletes you mentioned Simmons and we don’t really know what the his you know, what he’s been going through. He has not talked too openly about about what he has felt and what he has how he’s been treated. But there’s a there’s an athlete that was not received sympathetically overall.
Stefan Fatsis: So, you know, we’re not completely in the in the in the in the vanguard of a of a new wave, though. So clearly, those other examples are more prominent and more important in so many ways. And what else have you found in terms of, you know, the particularly team sports where you’re reliant you know, you talked about tennis and we talked about Naomi Osaka a lot. But teams for your your you know, the athletes are dealing with a group of other players and the stigma of being of coming clean about your mental health in that situation, in that environment, rather, is different, I think.
Speaker 8: Right. And I think that’s part of what you’re talking about with Ben Simmons. And by the way, I wouldn’t be too open about my mental health if my job security was at stake either. So I totally understand him not being ready to share. I also understand fans were a little skeptical, but I don’t really understand the fans who were like outright mocking him. I think it’s just super weird and totally inappropriate.
Speaker 8: But yeah, I like the team sport dynamic is super different and I think I’ve noticed that even in reporting my book where a lot of the athletes I’ve talked to are either individual sport athletes or they’re athletes in women’s leagues where it’s typically a bit more accepted to come forward with stuff like this because of, you know, gender bias. I haven’t talked to too many athletes on men’s sports teams about this.
Speaker 4: I hadn’t considered that differential in gender. That makes a lot of sense. And speaking of that, though, of course, men and women tend to play in sort of under different leagues and. Competitive structures. What has been, in your experience, the the role of the leagues? Are they. I know that they’re at least cosmetically I’ve heard a lot about that. We’re trying to provide counselors and things like that to the players, but of course, they understand this sort of stigma structure as well. Have they tried to penetrate that? How are they dealing with their their role in supporting players?
Speaker 8: It’s really interesting. A lot of it depends on how many resources a given league actually has. But you’re even seeing with leagues like the Premier Hockey Federation, for example, which is the formerly the National Women’s Hockey League, they don’t have a ton of money, they don’t have a ton of resources, but even they like for their like bubble. During the pandemic they set up like online therapy resources for their players. So there’s an acknowledgement, I think, across the board that this is a real factor, that it’s not going anywhere.
Speaker 8: You know, several men’s leagues have required sports psychologists on staff, at least a certain percentage of the time, which I think is really big. If you ask someone like, I don’t know Royce White, for example, there’s still a ton to be done in that regard. So I think leagues are starting to finally wake up to the possibility that, you know, they need to take this seriously.
Stefan Fatsis: Now, in college, too, I mean, you did a piece on college athletes and mental health back in 2018 for the ringer. Dennis Dodd at CBS Sports recently did a long piece about.
Speaker 7: A.
Stefan Fatsis: Series of suicides among college athletes this year for all women. In the first five months of 2020 to other athletes, he talks about Sedona Prince, the Oregon basketball star who became famous during the women’s basketball tournament in March of 2021 for showing, like, the weight racks of the women in the weight racks of the men. And she said, I’m off tik-tok for a while. My mental health has been declining for a long time to the point where I’m really at my lowest right now.
Speaker 8: Yeah, it’s kind of funny. When I was talking to Sara Fuller for a different piece I was working on for S.I., Sarah Fuller is the Vanderbilt former Vanderbilt soccer player and former Vanderbilt football kicker. And she was talking about Sedona is kind of like a role model in that regard, just with her influence and everything like that. And it was it’s not a direct 1 to 1 because I was kind of like, well, Sarah Sedona is famous, at least on some level, for playing her sport. You’re famous for, you know, taking on a completely different sport and like the gender norms associated with that. But yeah, the college component is very real. One of the things that Sarah talked to me about was Neal and how it’s obviously a net positive, but you do kind of have to keep up that appearance on social media of being happy in order to like retain your brand deals and everything like that.
Speaker 8: What kind of resources you have in colleges depends a lot on where you are. If you’re at a Division one school, you’re likely to have a sports psychologist on staff, maybe even more than one. And by the way, one is not enough. When you think about how many hundreds of athletes are in these athletic departments and think about like how many cases one human can physically like or logistically like take on in one week. And it’s you know, it’s not a lot. It’s maybe like. 50 if you’re really pushing it, but probably a lot fewer.
Stefan Fatsis: Julie, thank you so much for coming on the show. We’ll look forward to reading your book when it comes out.
Speaker 8: Thank you so much.
Stefan Fatsis: And Slate Plus members, thank you for being Slate Plus members. We’ll be back with more next week.